Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening -- until a band of gun wielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers.

My take: 4 looks
Beautifully written. This is my second Ann Patchett book, and I find her writing to be like a fine hand cream, so easily absorbed and satisfying.

Finding that it was inspired by the true "Japanese embassy hostage crisis" in 1996 gives it an even more realistic flavor. While it seems far-fetched that this could have gone on 4 months, that is exactly what happened in Peru. In that time, the characters in the book go from hostages/terrorists to friends. When the people are freed in the end, the scene is abrupt, tragic and horrifying. I became very fond of many of the guerrilla-type terrorists (my book club decided that the term guerrilla was infinitely more appropriate than terrorist). My heart hurt to see them killed in such a systematic manner. However, to the soldiers who finally broke the stalemate with their guns, the situation must have looked very different.

The fact that music was the common language shared by the people in the mansion was fascinating. The term "Bel Canto" means "beautiful music" in Italian, and it's obvious why Patchett chose this title. However, deeper down, bel canto expresses:
A light tone in higher registers: perhaps the terrorist releasing the women and children, as well as catering to Roxanne
An agile, flexible technique: the President was not available for kidnapping, so the terrorists changed their tactic
Fast and accurate divisions: this was obvious with the swiftness of the attack both in the beginning and when they were liberated at the end
Complete mastery of breath control: I see this obviously in the role of Roxanne, but also in Gen, who remains perfectly professional throughout the entire ordeal

The one and only item in the novel that distracted me was the vulgar use of the "f-word". I felt that it was completely out of line with the rhythm of the narrative, showed a decidedly lack of imagination in the wording of those scenes making use of the term, and was a detriment to the tone and feel of the novel. I was, in short, disappointed with Patchett's inclusion of what I found to be gratuitous obscenity.

That being said, I highly recommend this book.

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